Much of my work with organizations involves creative review of one or more issues and then developing a strategic direction. Often the situation is complex, or is subject to regular change and is one where no single answer will suffice. Complexity is a function of our society today and is difficult to avoid when strategy-making. Complexity can be countered by crafting something that we call guiding principles. These are key to helping the organization to act in a consistent and coherent manner in situations of complexity or change.
Guiding principles complement, not displace, an organization’s detailed strategy and business plan. The detailed strategy and plan are the systems (or the outline for systems needed), while guiding principles are the commitment. Guiding principles can help a collection of people to understand the very essence of an idea, interpret it for their situation and then act on the idea in their own way.
Guiding principles can help us make sense of things through our own, personal lens. They keep us consistent and aligned to an overall identity or strategy and to do this they must hold particular meaning to you or your group. They are willingly applied by a collection of people. Principles help us to understand a general direction, then personally interpret and apply them to situations that arise afterward.
A good guiding principle has the following characteristics –
- It achieves a great deal with very few words.
- It is applicable across a range of situations, but interpretable at an individual level.
- It is memorable.
- It uses straightforward language.
- It will often begin with an action verb to help decision-making.
- It is one of a small number of principles. Having just one is probably not enough. More than six and you reduce their effectiveness of being memorable, straightforward and so forth.
A good example is the following – Everything in moderation, nothing in excess. This phrase can have a number of interpretations for different people. Some will see it as the need for a steady approach. Others might see that within this phrase, extreme peaks and troughs are fine – on occasion, but not regularly. In all cases, users of the principle will interpret its overall meaning to suit their specific situation. In brief, they will be able to commit to the general idea, in a unique way that has the most relevant meaning for them.
The key aspect of guiding principles is that they help a collection of people to commit on a personal level. They are very helpful in generating strategically-aligned momentum with a variety of stakeholders. This is important. Strategies and plans are written regularly, but it is rare indeed when a strategy is enacted with no interruptions or hiccups along the way.
German Field Marshall van Moltke, who was a brilliant military strategist, once said, ‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy’. Moltke did not avoid the discipline of making strategic plans; indeed, he was apparently a very meticulous planner. What he did recognize, however, was that battle plans do not remain static. Any engagement is an emergent activity and strategies should be capable of dealing with emergence.
Guiding principles, I believe, are the bridge between outlining a system of strategic direction and building strategic commitment among those who will make the strategy a reality. Guiding principles give momentum to strategies by providing a clear way for individuals to make a commitment. The key connection of commitment, change and principles is the ability to receive the gist of a direction and to apply it personally. This makes sense. Regardless of the systems provided in each environment, it is individuals who must decide if, and how, they will personally commit and engage.
I am not advocating the end of strategy-making. No set of statements, principles or otherwise, should ever completely displace detailed strategic planning based on evidence, insights and genuine needs. However, I have seen how far-reaching the concepts of principles and individual commitment can be. The idealist in me asks if it is possible to ascribe or co-create a set of global guiding principles that serve fundamental concepts and which could be interpreted and applied by individuals? If whole regions, like Europe can do this, then perhaps there is hope for a global perspective to develop.
What would a global set of principles look like? How could they possibly encapsulate the enormous complexity of the planet we live on and yet be memorable and applicable for everyone (or those willing to participate) to embrace? Is it naïve or hopeful to think that agreeing to a set of world principles is possible? We will not know the answer to this, unless we attempt the debate. Below is a set of six principles which if applied at a personal level by individuals, might sharpen global focus on some significant and persistent issues of our time. These are suggestions* – the beginnings of a conversation about committing to key principles and working together to make them a reality.
- 1. One Earth.
- 2. Reduce, Reuse,Recycle.
- 3. Treat Others as You Would Have Them treat you.
- 4. Good Parenting is Priceless.
- 5. Knowledge is Nothing Unless Shared.
- 6. I Can 2.